Boundary marker between Europe and Asia (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, Library of Congress)
Between 1598 and 1613, Russia was torn asunder by a civil war usually known as the “Time of Troubles” in English. The strife calmed down fairly quickly, once Mikhail Romanov was elected tsar. The first Romanovs not only restored a semblance of order in Muscovy but also made Russia into the preeminent state in northeastern Europe by 1700. This chapter discusses how they did that and what sort of state and society the first Romanov tsars ruled.
Map 1.1. European Russia, 1618–1689 (From Allen F. Chew, An Atlas of Russian History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967. Used by permission.)
Map 1.2. Eastward expansion, 1598–1689 (From Allen F. Chew, An Atlas of Russian History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967. Used by permission.)
THE ROMANOV DYNASTY: MIKHAIL
In 1613, Mikhail Romanov (1596–1645) was chosen to be the tsar of Muscovy, a remote monarchy in existential danger on the outskirts of Asia and Europe. Muscovy, which only around that time began to be called Russia by Western Europeans—who knew very little about it—was populated primarily by Christians who pledged allegiance to Eastern Orthodoxy. They spoke an Eastern Slavic language, called Russian.
Their country, which had been a sparsely populated, albeit large, regional power on the Eastern European Plain during the sixteenth century, had done without a ruler for three years. Russia’s plight was so dire that the Polish king Sigismund Wasa (1566–1632) and his son Wladyslaw (1595–1648) claimed the tsar’s throne, while their soldiers occupied Moscow. The starving Poles were ousted after a siege by an army of Russians and Cossacks in 1612, inspired largely by a call from the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Germogen (ca. 1530–1612), who had soon thereafter died in confinement in a monastery. The head of the Russian Church succeeded in rallying the believers where others had failed in the previous fifteen years. During this spell (often called the Time of Troubles, or Smuta), the country had been ruined because of armed conflict regarding the legitimacy of a series of claimants to the throne, a devastating famine, and various foreign invasions. Many proclaimed themselves to be tsar, but no one was recognized by all who mattered (especially the nobility, as it served as the country’s military), until the patriarch called for the ouster of the Polish Catholic heretics who had defiled Russia’s most sacred places in Moscow’s Kremlin.
That it was Mikhail Romanov who was chosen to be tsar was the consequence of several considerations among Muscovy’s political and religious leaders. In the first place, his great-aunt was the first wife (Anastasia, 1530–1560) of the last tsar whose rule had been uncontested, Ivan IV (1530–1584, ruled 1547–1584). Second, despite belonging to a prominent family, Mikhail was not associated with any particular faction in the civil war that had laid waste to Muscovy, because he was a mere teenager. His father, the Boyar (high nobleman) Fyodor Nikitich Romanov (1553–1633), had been forced by Tsar Boris Godunov (1552–1605) to take the tonsure (become a monk) and divorce Mikhail’s mother (Kseniia Shestova, d. 1631), who was coerced to become a nun.
When he entered the monastery in 1601, Fyodor Nikitich had assumed the name Filaret. Filaret returned to prominence after the ouster of the Godunovs. In 1605, Filaret was made metropolitan of Rostov by one of Godunov’s short-lived successors. This made Filaret the second-highest-ranking prelate in the Russian Orthodox Church. Filaret had fallen into Polish captivity in 1610 but remained a highly respected and authoritative figure in Muscovite political life. When his son was elected tsar, the patriarchal seat was left open to await Filaret’s return, which occurred only after the conclusion of the Truce of Deulino of 1619 with Poland. Filaret was then duly installed as patriarch and was to rule Russia together with Mikhail.
Without his father’s counsel, however, Mikhail needed to rely on others at the court. He could ill afford to banish all those from court who had been tainted by their previous collaboration with the disgraced regimes that had preceded his own. Few outside the “liberation army,” which had been led by nobles of lesser rank and even some commoners, had clean hands in this respect. Indeed, since war with Sweden (with which peace was signed only in 1617), Poland-Lithuania, and a variety of pretenders to the throne was ongoing in 1613, settling scores with collaborators was not a wise strategy. The young tsar met fairly regularly during the 1610s with an advisory council (Zemskii Sobor or “Assembly of the Land”), in which representatives of all those who were not serfs (peasants tied to their lord’s land) gathered to discuss matters of state with the monarch.
Mikhail met more regularly with an inner council, often called the Boyar Duma by historians, in which only the boyars had a seat, as well as some of the church leaders and top bureaucrats, a few dozen men in total. In this council could be found Mikhail’s key advisors, such as Prince (Kniaz)1Ivan Borisovich Cherkasskii (ca. 1580–1642) and Prince Aleksei Mikhailovich L'vov (ca. 1580–ca. 1653), as well as, eventually, his father.
Mikhail’s rule was geared primarily toward consolidation, but Muscovy recovered surprisingly quickly. Buoyed by this revival, an impatient and vengeful Filaret persuaded his son to declare war on Poland in 1632 in order to recover the border town of Smolensk.
Figure 1.1. Smolensk’s fortifications, seventeenth century (Library of Congress)
The campaign failed, but the fact that it could be mounted at all speaks to a remarkable turnaround. Further indicative of this newfound strength was the Russian ability to deploy thousands of expensive foreign mercenaries in this war (1632–1634). And it was in Mikhail’s reign that Russian explorers reached the Pacific Sea, confirming Russia’s rule over the vast territory of Siberia.
THE ROMANOV DYNASTY: ALEKSEI
Mikhail’s son Aleksei (1629–1676) was the same age as his father when he succeeded in 1645. All was not well in his realm, for he was faced with a series of rebellions, including in Moscow, in the first years of his reign. The revolts seem to have been the expression of an accumulation of grievances that had been festering for some years. Although Muscovy had recovered from the Time of Troubles under Mikhail, the government had stretched the country’s resources to the limit in the lean circumstances of the onset of the Little Ice Age (1550–1650). The tsar’s advisors especially became the target of popular wrath (some were slaughtered by a crowd in Moscow in 1648), but the causes of the unrest should be sought beyond poor advice. Whereas the adverse climate continually imperiled the harvests, a variety of mounting social and economic problems confronted the young tsar.
Figure 1.2. Aleksei, traditional contemporary image
Taxes were paid by peasants and townsfolk, and their high level placed a strain on these groups. Although nobles and church were exempt from taxes, the traditional backbone of the army, the lesser nobility, had ever greater difficulty in honoring its obligation to serve in the cavalry. Their serfs could not produce enough of a surplus to equip them for war, while many nobles had been allotted too few serfs to sustain their expenses in the first place. In addition, the nobles resented the hiring of military experts and the reorganization of the army following Western European models. The traditional cavalry’s role in battle was diminished, and nobles were deployed with foreigners and peasants, to which they strongly objected.
Aleksei managed to placate his nobles by prohibiting peasants’ departure from their villages in search of better labor conditions or work elsewhere, tying them and their progeny as serfs forever to the land. The tsar did this in consultation with one of the last of the Zemskii Sobors. The decree was part of a law code (Ulozhenie) issued in 1649 that until the 1830s remained in force as the fundamental set of laws through which Russia was ruled. Apart from this code, Aleksei responded to the urban unrest by dismissing some of his key advisors, raising the wages of riotous musketeers (strel'tsy), who formed another traditional force of army specialists, and halting the collections of some of the taxes owing.
Aleksei then did what every self-respecting medieval or early modern Christian monarch was wont to do: go to war. But he was a cautious man by inclination and made sure that he could field an army that matched that of his enemies. For several years, over the objections of nobles and strel'tsy, foreign mercenary officers provided intensive training of noble and peasant cavalry and infantry according to the lessons of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which had just concluded in Central Europe. Aleksei carefully consulted with another Zemskii Sobor to guarantee sustained support from the home front for his campaigns. And he found a cause that was far greater than the mere glory of his dynasty or the expansion of his country: religion. Ukrainian Cossacks, led by Ataman Bohdan Khmelnitskii (1596–1657), had risen against the Polish government’s attempts to curtail their freedom and its support to efforts to convert Ukrainians to Catholicism. The war with Poland-Lithuania could thus be cloaked in the guise of a religious war.
The decision to attack Poland-Lithuania was made easier as well because the area promised to be the weakest of potential foes. Sweden, controlling much of the Baltic shores, had the reputation of having the strongest army of Europe. Meanwhile, Muscovy might have acquired by the 1650s the capability to defend against the Turkish-Tatar alliance that controlled the lands to its south, but it was still far from able to launch an offensive war against this Muslim behemoth.
The first Russian campaigns of the Thirteen Years’ War (1654–1667) were highly successful, and Russia not only recovered Smolensk but also occupied virtually all of what is now eastern Ukraine, Belarus, and even took the traditional Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Poland seemed on the verge of total collapse (the period is known in Polish history as that of the “Deluge,” or Potop). Its debacle against Russia led to Swedish and Turkish incursions into Polish territory. Preferring a weak Poland to a strong Sweden and Turkey at his western border, Aleksei became sufficiently alarmed by this to conclude a truce with Poland in 1656 and turn against Sweden (1656–1658). Although Russian armies besieged the key port of Riga, the Swedes proved to be too formidable as opponents in this conflict. After an armistice of three years, in 1661 Sweden and Russia concluded the Treaty of Kardis, which changed little on the map. Meanwhile, the Poles recovered and managed to push back the Swedes, concluding a peace with them in 1660.
Concomitantly, in 1659 and 1660, the Poles recouped territory that had been in Russian hands. Afterward, military success alternated between the two sides, with neither gaining a definitive advantage. The Poles were handicapped by internal dissent and the outbreak of a civil war between various noble factions. This allowed the Muscovite negotiators to see a substantial amount of their demands accepted by the Poles in the Truce of Andrusovo of 1667, which gave the tsar title to Smolensk, eastern Ukraine, and Kyiv. Initially, the Ukrainian capital was to be ruled by Russia for only twenty years. When negotiators for both sides reconvened in 1686, however, Poland was embroiled in a conflict with Turks and ripped asunder by internal disagreement. The Polish king Jan III Sobieski (1629–1696) then gave up Kyiv permanently in the “Eternal Peace” that was concluded between Russia and Poland.
Aleksei thus added a crucial stretch of land to Muscovy. The acquisition of eastern Ukraine in 1667 had repercussions that are still felt in our own time. In the nineteenth century, Russians were to claim that Ukraine (then labeled “Little Russia” by them) was an integral part of the Romanov empire, claiming that Ukrainian was no more than a Russian peasant dialect. In the cities of Ukraine, Russian was the language of administration and much of the population. This was all the more so in eastern Ukraine, where industrialization led to an influx of Russian factory workers and miners in the second half of the nineteenth century. But Ukrainian nationalists were not to accept such Russian paternalism. Ukrainian nationalism as a movement, however, was to be much stronger in western Ukraine, which remained Polish until the late eighteenth century (and its fringes were eventually Austrian ruled), than in the east, acquired in 1667.
The further development of Ukrainian-Russian relations will be discussed later on, but it is nonetheless worthwhile remembering that even today the population of eastern Ukraine, a region much longer part of the Romanov empire than western Ukraine, is far less nationalist and far more pro-Russian. This is reflected in the hotly contested presidential elections in Ukraine, where pro- and anti-Russian candidates face off. The roots of this conflict can be traced to Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich’s victory of 1667.
The year 1667 was undoubtedly one of triumph for Aleksei. Not only had he defeated the Polish enemies who had held Russia in check for two centuries, but he also showed who was boss in the Russian Orthodox Church. Indeed, he felt confident enough to impose higher tariffs on Western European import-and-export trade with Russia and made a move to intensify economic ties with Safavid Iran. This was potentially lucrative, as the Persians were a key source for raw silk that was in high demand in Western Europe. Aleksei’s attempts to reroute this trade away from the overland caravan route that ended at Turkish-held Mediterranean ports did not succeed in the end because he was confronted with the Razin rebellion in 1670–1671. This uprising caused the Russians to abandon the plans for a naval patrol to protect merchants interested in traversing the Caspian Sea and Volga with their goods.
Aleksei was pondering a new major war at the time of his sudden death in early 1676. He was tempted by Western European governments to resume hostilities with Sweden but may have been more interested in fighting the Turks and Tatars in alliance with Poland-Lithuania. This, at least, is what the regency council that took the reins after his death decided to do. That war proved once again that Russia could not yet be too overambitious: when the fighting ended in 1681, Russia had gained nothing for itself, its Polish allies, or its western Ukrainian Cossack allies. For the first Romanovs, great powers of the age such as Sweden and the Ottoman Empire were still too powerful to challenge successfully.
Aleksei’s death was followed by an interlude in which regents held the reins of power for most of the period 1676–1689. Court rivalries between the clans of Aleksei’s first and second wives and their relatives hallmarked the period, with one particular ferocious moment of reckoning in May 1682. Throughout, it was the Miloslavskii clan (relatives of Aleksei’s first spouse) that held the upper hand over the Naryshkins (the family of Aleksei’s second wife), but its efforts were always hindered by the absence of a credible male candidate for the throne. Fyodor III (1661–1682) was, besides young, in poor physical health, while his brother Ivan V (co-ruled 1682–1696) was physically ailing as well as mentally afflicted.
In addition, through some of their rash actions, the Miloslavskiis lost the potential support of those who liked to be convinced by the wisdom of the faction that was in the ascendance. In 1682, for instance, they encouraged disaffected strel'tsy to run riot in Moscow to browbeat the Naryshkins. The musketeers murdered some of the leading Naryshkin men as well as other boyars who had little to do with the Naryshkins. But they stopped short of dispatching the Naryshkin heir Peter (1672–1725) and his mother.
After 1682, the Miloslavskii faction was led ever more emphatically by Sofia Alekseevna (1657–1704) in the name of the official tsars, her brother Ivan, and her half brother Peter (who had been proclaimed as co-rulers in 1682). Sofia and her key advisor Vasilii Golitsyn (1643–1714), however, may have underestimated the smoldering misogyny of the Russian elite. More crucial was their decision to mount two campaigns (in 1687 and 1689) against the Crimean Tatars. These were costly affairs in terms of money and human lives, and neither ever came close to reaching the Crimean peninsula, or even engaging the Tatars in a significant battle. When Sofia appeared to try to underline her status as regent of Russia in 1689, most of her supporters switched sides to Peter, who had fled Moscow to escape possible assassination. Instead of Sofia, it was Peter who became the uncontested Russian ruler in the summer of 1689. The teenage tsar was fond enough of his half brother to maintain the fiction of co-rule until Ivan’s death in 1696.
THE RULING SYSTEM
Although Muscovy had existed as an independent state in the borderlands of Asia and Europe for more than a century, and while it encompassed as much territory as Poland-Lithuania (the largest European state in terms of size), it collapsed quickly after its ruling dynasty became extinct in 1598. This shows, on the one hand, how much states’ survival in the early modern world depended on the physical health of their rulers and the availability of legitimate adult successors when they died; on the other hand, it also displays how most states were very loosely organized polities that easily fell apart.
Thus, although the Russian central bureaucracy in Moscow was large by European standards after Mikhail Romanov came to power, it did not consist of more than a few hundred administrators before the eighteenth century. Many of these servants did not receive regular wages but lived off the proceeds from land or nonrecurring bonuses awarded to them by the government, and off the fees they charged from those seeking the government’s aid. The main occupation of this government apparatus was maintaining the armed forces, but if they were comprehensively defeated, as happened in 1605 or 1610, the Russian state imploded with them.
But the bureaucratic tradition proved resilient. It was strong enough to restore a reasonably well-functioning government after Mikhail Romanov was crowned tsar. Indeed, some of the servants managed to survive in office throughout the Time of Troubles, despite all of the regime changes from 1598 to 1613.2 They thus preserved certain bureaucratic methods and techniques through which the country could be ruled in a reasonably efficient manner, once order was restored by military means.
The new Romanov dynasty and the bureaucracy behind it relied on the support of the warrior class (the higher nobility of boyars and gentry class of dvoriane) and the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church (at all levels of its hierarchy) for their survival. Tsar, boyars, civil servants, priests, and monks jointly maintained, and gradually increased, their government’s power at home and abroad. A tacit agreement was struck in 1613 that Russia was once again to display itself as an autocracy, a country ruled by one all-powerful and all-seeing man, as it had always been. In exchange for maintaining this facade, the noble elite and bureaucracy were allowed to lord it over the rest of the population, with the church advocating meek obedience of the worldly government as the path to salvation for the faithful. This pact was enshrined by the Ulozhenie of 1649, which confirmed the unfree status of most of the tsar’s subjects. The system worked so well by 1725 that it easily survived a series of succession crises in the eighteenth century. Already earlier (in 1682 and 1689), when disputes erupted about which member of the family was to rule, it appeared as if the collapse of Romanov rule as such had become a remote possibility.
It was only after Tsaritsa Catherine the Great’s death in 1796 that the monarch’s legitimacy began to be questioned by his subjects on the basis of rather different premises than in the early 1600s. By 1900, most of the leading lights of a complex mass society composed of 130 million individuals no longer considered one-person rule as the government best suited to Russia. But even then many peasants still worshipped their Tsar-Batiushka (“Tsar Little Father”) as God’s representative on earth. This highlights how ideas of accountable government or of political systems of checks and balances are a rather late development in human history: few people knew about them—and then only in an abstract manner (as through the example of classical Athenian democracy)—in most of the world around 1600 or 1700.
RUSSIA’S ECONOMY, SOCIETY, AND CULTURE
The means to run this empire and field its army came from two sources: peasants working the land and trade, especially in rare goods that were gathered in its vast lands and could be exported. In the latter case, Romanov Russia was lucky in finding great riches in rare animal furs (such as ermine, sable, fox, or mink) that were in high demand everywhere in the seventeenth century, especially in Western Europe. Under the first Romanovs, the fur trade may have provided the government with 10 percent of its income. Other goods, such as naval stores (wood, hemp, and tar) and saltpeter (essential to make gunpowder) or potash (important for dyeing clothes), too, were in high demand in Europe. The government also levied taxes on sales of goods and on wares imported from abroad.
But many segments of the Russian economy did not use money in the seventeenth century: the peasants produced foodstuffs for themselves and for their lords, who had been assigned peasant villages that were to provide for their livelihood. The noble lords either consumed or exchanged (mostly in kind, sometimes in cash) their share of this yield for arms and equipment needed for battle (their task in life) as well as their other expenses. Peasants, in addition, paid taxes (usually in kind as well) to the state. The state used this income to pay its soldiers during military campaigns (often enough in goods such as grain rather than money). It also used taxation revenue for other expenditures, such as the purchase of arms and ordnance at home and abroad. After 1649, only a minority of peasants were legally free. Most were serfs, bound to the land (and thus the landlord). Either they worked part of their time (often at least half a week) on their lord’s land or they had to surrender a considerable amount of what they produced to their lords. The height of these burdens made farming even more a backbreaking sort of occupation than it already was in early modern Russia.
For, apart from the exorbitant burden placed on the peasants through serfdom and taxation, Russia’s climate was (and is) inhospitable to farming. The growing season for crops ran in most places from early May to late September, leading to frantic stints of plowing, sowing, haying, and harvesting within that short period. The diet of all groups of Muscovite society was highly deficient until the elite developed a greater refinement of its menu, when it began to emulate Western European examples (thus various seventeenth-century visitors to Moscow observed how Russian nobles began to consume lettuce and other fresh vegetables). Traditionally, fresh vegetables were seldom eaten (not even in summer), and fresh fruit was only seasonally enjoyed. Russian peasants were highly skilled at canning cabbage and mushrooms or making preserves from fruit (especially berries), and they also made mildly alcoholic drinks from honey (myod) and rye (kvas). Meat, game, or poultry were rarely eaten by the serfs, but they did add to their table’s variety by fishing in the innumerable lakes, rivers, and creeks throughout the country. The main staple remained rye, a hardy grain that can be grown at high latitude. Whereas it may be difficult for the reader to imagine how people survived on such imbalanced nourishment, the Russian diet was no worse than that consumed in most places of the world in the seventeenth century. Little changed in this until the twentieth century, with the important exception of the introduction of the potato to the menu toward 1800.
By the seventeenth century, the drinking of distilled alcohol had become normal in most Orthodox households. Although Russians were portrayed by Western visitors as inveterate drinkers who drank themselves into a stupor whenever given the chance, the consumption of hard liquor did not reach the diseased proportions of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Inebriation levels were likely no different from those elsewhere in the contemporary Christian world. Western Europeans were more than anything astounded by the manner in which Russians celebrated their holidays, when they gave themselves over to what seemed total abandonment (especially notorious was Maslennitsa, the Russian version of Mardi Gras or carnival). That was not the way to party in Western Europe, where people tended to revel in a somewhat less ebullient manner. But the English addiction to gin in the eighteenth century was as bad as the Russian addiction to vodka.
The Muscovite government did occasionally feel obligated to curtail excessive drinking. Tsar Aleksei implemented a government monopoly on taverns, an action that lessened popular consumption of strong liquor, for at that time few peasants yet mastered the intricacies of distillation (unlike in the nineteenth century and afterward). Vodka had to be bought for fairly expensive prices, and few could afford to do so more than a handful of times in the year. Of course, many of the tsar’s subjects were Muslims, descendants from the Mongolians and Turkic Tatars who had ruled European Russia for more than two centuries (roughly speaking, from the 1240s to the 1480s). They usually refrained from the consumption of alcohol.
Figure 1.3. Peasant hut, early twentieth century (Library of Congress)
The bone-chilling cold of winter was fought by building wooden houses centered on the stove, which doubled as an oven. Peasants slept on top of the furnace or in cavities set within its sidewall, and farm animals often slept in the same quarters in winter. Some stoves had no chimney, while ventilation was poor (as a good airflow would let too much heat out) in every hut. People and animals shared their living quarters with innumerable insects. Because in both towns and villages wood was the prime building material, fires were common, regularly destroying Russian domiciles and sometimes killing their occupants. Westerners observed how Moscow’s population tore down houses when fire broke out in the city rather than trying to extinguish the flames with water. At the same time, artisans in the capital were extremely skilled at construction, able to rebuild many a house in a day. But deaths through fire were a common fact of Russian life. Stone buildings began to be erected in greater numbers only in the course of the seventeenth century. Wooden huts, though, were to remain the norm in the countryside until the twentieth century.
Since this was normal before 1800 elsewhere, too, the reader may not be surprised to learn that the health of most Russians was poor, that child mortality was high, and that epidemics were frequent visitors to peasant households. Many women did not survive childbearing age because of complications during childbirth or a pregnancy gone wrong. Although in Russia the plague may have sometimes hit with less intensity or with a lower frequency because of the cold weather, plague nonetheless raged with devastating consequences (for example, in 1654 and 1771 in Moscow); often, the countryside was spared because of the great distance between settlements and the very low level of urbanization. Seventeenth-century Moscow may have had around one hundred thousand inhabitants, but no other town had more than ten thousand people.
It is moot in how far wise women were able to stave off many ailments and afflictions.3 Such women took on the role of midwives as well. Whereas their healing techniques or aid in childbirth were undoubtedly far inferior to those practiced by modern medicine, they were likely as effective as the formally trained doctors of the age. If the Romanov tsars themselves may serve as an example, it can be noted that their reliance on Western doctors was to very little avail. Mikhail and Aleksei died before they reached the age of fifty, and Fyodor III was barely in his twenties when he succumbed.
A final point regarding the marginal quality of the average peasant’s existence in seventeenth-century Russia should be made. Whereas tobacco consumption (sniffing, chewing, or smoking) was prohibited from the 1630s to the 1690s, seventeenth-century visitors observed a fanatical desire among Russians to consume the weed. Certainly, once Peter the Great legalized tobacco just before 1700, both the import and domestic tillage of tobacco reached vast proportions. If Russians could spend so much time, effort, and even money on acquiring a wholly frivolous luxury product such as tobacco, the standard of living cannot have been that low (a similar argument can be made about vodka consumption). And other circumstantial evidence seems to support this idea: the Eastern Slavic population grew rapidly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, even before health care improved substantially in the second half of the nineteenth century (especially through inoculation). In the eighteenth century alone, the population may have doubled.
Peasant life was determined by the seasons, not just because of the cold, but also because the workday was long during the lengthy summer days and short during winter, when little else was done than chopping wood, some hunting and (ice) fishing, and making or repairing tools and clothes. Activity ceased so much on the farms that still in 1900 the authoritative British Medical Journal reported that in Pskov province peasants spent the winter in almost full hibernation, waking once a day to eat a piece of bread and have a draft of water.
The peasants had an elaborate tradition of songs and storytelling but were almost universally illiterate. Only by 1900, a majority of Russian children received a measure of general education. Before 1800, indeed, literacy was a rare phenomenon among Russians in towns and in the countryside, but it is difficult to assess how many people could read. A great number of Russian primers were printed in the seventeenth century (when government and patriarchal printing presses issued thousands of books), which leads some scholars to infer that more people could read than was later suggested by antitsarist historians (especially those of the early Soviet Union), who tried to depict Romanov Russia as a bog of ignorance. Almost all who were part of the clergy could undoubtedly read, and the secular clergy (the married parish priests of the “white” clergy, as they sometimes were called because of their dress) certainly taught their own sons, and possibly daughters, as well as others, basic literacy. Similarly, merchants and tradesmen in the towns must have had a notion of numeracy, necessary to function as economic actors. Still, we even know of nobles who could not sign their names. Scribes hiring out their services to people who wanted to petition the government were found in every larger settlement.
But only very few Muscovites were literate enough to write literature, loosely defined. Some of the best works of the age are church sermons. A handful of individuals wrote works of more lasting interest (although primarily for historians), such as Archpriest Avvakum’s (ca. 1620–1682) autobiography (its authorship is in doubt) or Grigorii Kotoshikhin’s (ca. 1630–1667) description of the Russian government. By the 1680s the first institute of higher education was opened in the Slavo-Graeco-Latin Academy in Moscow, modeled after the Ukrainian metropolitan Petro Mohyla’s (1596–1646) academy founded in 1630s Kyiv. The students at this institute, too, were far from numerous.
Among non-Russians, literacy was probably as low as among Russians, while its prevalence might also be differentiated according to people’s economic role. In addition, most of the non-Russian population had no printing presses to supply them with textbooks and other reading material. Furthermore, in Islamic communities the formal religious language was Arabic, a tongue not spoken anywhere inside of the Russian Empire, which hindered the spread of reading among Muslims. Meanwhile, the Russians understood a little bit more about mass than their European counterparts in the Catholic Church, for the liturgical language of the Orthodox Church was Church Slavonic, an older version of Russian. It was gradually replaced by vernacular Russian.
Figure 1.4. Traditional wooden church in Siberia, early twentieth century (Library of Congress)
The reforms of Patriarch Nikon (1605–1681) during the 1650s of some of the Orthodox rituals observed in the Russian Church probably changed little about popular religious customs. As their Christian counterparts in much of Europe (before the confessionalization wave of the seventeenth century), the Eastern Slavic Orthodox believers traditionally followed an eclectic mix of proper Christian rituals and pre-Christian habits (for example, to have a picnic on your ancestors’ graves on Rodinitsa in spring) and beliefs (as that in spirits and demons). This has led some observers to suggest that Russia had a “dual faith” (dvoeverie), half Christian and half pagan.4 Many pagan deities and holidays were absorbed by Russian Christianity, not unlike the Western acceptance of things such as Christmas trees and Easter eggs (also popular in Russia), of which there is no mention in the Bible. Nikon’s reforms, however, were of a very different kind than those strengthening the Christian convictions of many other Europeans at about the same time. Nikon’s changes primarily affected the outward manner in which the Orthodox worshipped and did little to nothing in terms of enforcing a uniform Christianity stripped of lingering pagan elements. Thus, Georgii Fedotov suggested that even by 1900 the beliefs of the great majority of Russians should be understood as a dual faith. It does not seem coincidental that any witch craze was absent in Russia, a fact that is indicative of the acceptance of wise women and “natural” healers in Russian society.
WOMEN AND MEN IN EARLY MODERN RUSSIA
More likely than not to die of childbirth, women’s lot was as harsh in Russia as elsewhere in early modern societies. The realities of the farming season, meanwhile, prevented peasant work from being too strictly assigned according to gender (with women taking care of the children and the farm animals, while men toiled in the fields). Women worked as hard as men in the villages, even if socially they had an inferior status. Often worst off were newly married women, since in many Russian villages exogamy was practiced, which meant that girls married outside of their village. In their new community, they lacked the protection of their family and might be exposed to the tyranny and physical abuse not just of their husbands but also of their mothers-in-law. Nonetheless, exogamy was not a standard everywhere. And practices were obviously different in non-Russian communities: In Islamic regions polygamy was often practiced, although it was far from universal. The number of wives a Muslim man had depended on his economic well-being. Most were far too poor to have more than one wife.
Whereas in Christian Orthodox villages the seclusion of women was a practical impossibility, in the towns elite women were often secluded in separate quarters (terem) and barred from going out in public. This went back to a late Byzantine custom that had been transferred to Russia in the waning days of the Eastern Roman Empire during the fifteenth century. Although seclusion became the custom at court and for aristocratic women, in nonnoble circles this sort of habit was impossible to observe for practical reasons, with women being full-fledged economic actors.
Meanwhile, among the elite, women were gradually given somewhat greater freedom in the course of the seventeenth century. Aleksei’s first wife Maria Miloslavskaia (1625–1669) played a significant role in organizing her household and the court’s charitable activities, while his second wife Natalia Naryshkina (1651–1694) encouraged the tsar’s curiosity about matters European, leading to the staging of the first theater play at the court in the 1670s. One of Maria’s daughters, Sofia, served as Muscovy’s regent from 1682 to 1689. She was bold enough to commission the production of an engraved portrait to underscore her claims to the throne, even if the print was never distributed as she lost out to her half brother Peter at the time it was made. But despite his quarrel with his sister, Peter strongly promoted women’s appearance in public, inspired by what he had witnessed in Moscow’s foreign suburb and seen on his trip to Western Europe in 1697–1698.
Notwithstanding the strong influence of some women at the court, in all layers of society women enjoyed only few rights. It was, however, true that noblewomen could lord it over their domestic servants and field hands. And likewise, mothers-in-law and even widows in some peasant households might be able to exert power over women with less agency. Altogether, though, throughout society women enjoyed little agency and, despite the eighteenth century being an age of female rule in Russia, little changed in this respect until the twentieth century.
THE GEOGRAPHICAL CHALLENGE
Premodern Russians’ acquiescence in autocracy can be in part explained by the challenges their country’s geography placed before the government. In the early modern age, Russia was an immense country with a very small population (for the 1670s, the estimate is that Russia had approximately ten million inhabitants, which is only half the size of contemporary France’s population). Many people accepted autocracy without demurring because the tsar played at best a minute role in their lives, especially if they lived outside the Muscovite heartland populated mainly by Russians (that is, the territory around Moscow stretching from Tula and Voronezh in the south, to Nizhnii Novgorod in the east, via Yaroslavl' and Vologda to Arkhangel'sk in the north, and to Novgorod, Pskov, and Smolensk in the west).
The means of communication and transport were too primitive to enforce the monarch’s rule consistently. Even in the heartland, mud made traveling almost impossible in spring and autumn, and long-distance traveling in winter, when routes were in good condition for sleighs and mounted riders to use, was only for the hardy types because of the intense cold. The Russians had inherited from the Mongolians a fairly efficient “postal” system that allowed government officials and others to travel expeditiously through the use of stations located along the major roads where fresh horses were kept, but those roads were few and the distances remained formidable. Apart from traversing semihardened highways or snow-and-ice roads in winter, a good deal of traveling went over water, through a deft use of the innumerable waterways of Russia and Siberia. Rivers allowed for the easiest transport of goods in bulk (such as grain), but this was not exactly a fast way of moving. Going against the current was, of course, especially slow. With the growth of the population, ever more barge haulers were employed, but their loads progressed up and down the rivers only as quickly as a human being can walk pulling something heavy. And from autumn to spring, rivers could not be used.
Uprisings were periodic, but those who rejected the tsar’s rule or boyar and church exploitation (the Orthodox Church had innumerable serfs working for it) often opted for a more promising option than rebellion (which invariably ended in the massacre of the rebels): flight to remote areas. Runaway serfs were hunted and sometimes brought back to their lords, but restrictions on means and time meant that posses could be out searching only for so long.
Russia, then, was in theory an autocracy, a country in which one person, who spent most of his time in and around Moscow, decided everything of importance that affected his subjects. In practice, however, this was a country in which many went about their lives rarely directly affected by the tsar’s rule. The Romanovs delegated power to nobles, chieftains, Cossacks (in Siberia), local clerks, monks, and priests. These aristocrats, officials, soldiers, and clerics across the empire maintained order for the tsars, collected taxes and labor dues, and dispensed justice. Whether the dues owed to the tsar were ever given to the government depended on these subordinates’ will. And whether the latter succeeded in collecting the taxes and tribute due to the government depended on the desire of the local population to pay them. If they had no such inclination, it was not too difficult to disappear into the steppe (grasslands), the taiga (forest), or the barren tundra.
WITHIN AND WITHOUT RUSSIA
The Romanov empire was never an empire made up of Russian speakers, or ethnic (Great) Russians, alone. Its history, and that of the Soviet Union, was one determined by the constant interaction of different cultures and ethnicities, within its borders and beyond it. Borders, indeed, were almost anywhere in the world utterly fluid in the seventeenth century (in the Russian case sometimes until the twentieth century), in the absence of good maps or artificial markers on the ground and any meaningful patrol of immensely lengthy frontiers (in Soviet times, more than one million border guards were deployed to watch the Soviet borders).
Russia’s southern and southeastern borders in particular had been porous before the seventeenth century. This was the zone through which nomads had periodically entered the Eastern European Plain, since at least from the age of the Hittites three thousand years earlier (the Huns, Magyars, Polovtsy, and Mongols had done so in more recent times). The seventeenth century marks an important watershed in world history in this respect. Precisely during the reigns of the first Romanovs, nomads in Eurasia were definitively placed on the defensive by states in which most of the population lived a settled existence (apart from Russia, Qing China also ended Mongolian, Kalmyk, and Tibetan raiding).
The Russian heartland was protected better than ever in the seventeenth century against invaders from the steppes to the south and southeast. The end of the invasions from Central Asia that had plagued Europe for millennia was in the first place a consequence of the Russian advance into Siberia (beginning in earnest during the early 1580s) and of the greater control Russia acquired along the Caspian Sea’s shores (Astrakhan, at the Volga mouth, became Russian in 1556). This led to a sustained effort on the part of the Russians to shore up their borders in the south and southeast.
They used the terrain’s natural obstacles (dense forests, hills, and rivers) together with wooden palisades to create a protective fence or wall that ended the periodic Tatar incursions that had plagued Muscovy previously (hundreds of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians were captured in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bought back for ransom, or sold at the slave markets of the Ottoman Empire such as at Istanbul and Kaffa). This “Abatis line” was further garrisoned intensively, with sentries continuously on the lookout for raiding parties; eventually, this line expanded and stretched out all the way from southwest of Moscow to the lands beyond the Volga. It seemed to be a version of the Great Wall of China at the other side of the Eurasian continent and was reasonably effective. Slave raiding into Russia proper became increasingly rare toward 1700. Russia, too, made the first crucial steps to bring the lawless (or, perhaps, stateless) borderlands (Okraina, or Ukraine) beyond this frontier under control. This latter process was drawn out (1654–1783), but significant headway was made by 1667, when the tsar acquired the title to eastern Ukraine and (for all intents and purposes) Kyiv.
Nevertheless, like other early modern states in Europe and Asia, Russia experienced several huge rebellions, in which the growing power of Moscow’s central government was challenged. Within its borders, insurrections of a smaller scale were endemic before the early eighteenth century. These uprisings were informed by economic, social, and religious grievances, while they often derived as well from a broader cultural clash with Russian rule. Although rebels desired greater independence or freedom from Moscow, these revolts did not resemble the risings that engulfed the Russian Empire in 1917, because they lacked a coherent political agenda. Few challenged the autocracy, even if they rose against the tsar’s government. Usually, the tsar’s advisors were blamed, or the tsar was said to be an impostor.
Figure 1.5. Tatars in Siberia, seventeenth century European engraving (From N. Witsen, “Noord- en Oost-Tartarije,” Amsterdam, 1697)
In the seventeenth century, the first Romanovs and their boyars faced foreign wars with Tatars, Turks, Poles, and Swedes; the Razin rebellion along the Volga; and urban revolts in Moscow and other towns, while violent conflict with Kalmyks and Central Asian Kazakhs periodically erupted. In Siberia, the welter of native groups was only with difficulty controlled. I have pointed out the uncertain quality of the tsar’s power over his subjects. Similarly, Michael Khodarkovsky has argued that for most of the territory outside of the heartland, Russia’s “rule” amounted to a compromise between the central government and its subjects, where both sides believed to benefit more from their agreement to collaborate rather than to fight each other. This was no different from contemporary European empires in the Americas, where Spanish rule was tentative in South and Middle America and, as Richard White has suggested, when in North America European colonists and native American groups met on a “Middle Ground,” with neither side imposing its will on the other.
Since Mongolian times the Muscovites were in the habit of co-opting the elite of subjugated peoples into their own nobility. The writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), who fled the Russian Revolution of 1917, thus suggested that he was a descendant of the Tatar Nabok family. A famous (and definitely nonfictional) example was that of the Cherkess princes. These chiefs of a northern Caucasian ethnic group became the princes Cherkasskii, redoubtable military commanders and senior advisors of the first Romanovs in the seventeenth century. Polish-Lithuanian nobles were equally welcomed into the fold of the Russian aristocracy (as in 1667, when those of eastern Ukraine were forced to choose between abandoning their possessions and moving westward or changing overlords and keeping their estates under tsarist rule). Such a strategy of integration aided the Russian cause handsomely. Once a community’s elite was made part of Russia’s ruling stratum, it proved much easier to control its rank and file. This was rather different from the manner in which the population of European overseas colonies was brought to heel.
Serfdom remained a phenomenon encountered primarily in Slavic areas or (later) in the Baltic region. In non-Slavic areas, society was differently organized. Groups such as Bashkirs, Nogais, or Kalmyks were allowed to maintain their traditional society and culture in exchange for their loyalty and little else. For a while, the Russians even paid local chiefs tribute in order to maintain good relations. Only very gradually were such nomadic groups incorporated into the tsar’s empire in a more comprehensive manner by stripping away their autonomous rights. Siberian natives were sometimes bullied, as they lived in smaller communities and could easily be handled by Cossacks equipped with firearms. Cossacks held representatives from an ethnic group hostage in garrison fortresses to ensure their submission and the timely delivery of the customary tribute of furs.
The Cossacks’ history, in fact, is a good example of the slow and circuitous route taken by the Russian government to become the unchallenged sovereigns of an unruly set of previously autonomous communities located in peripheral regions. The Cossacks emerged somewhere in the course of the fifteenth century. Originally, they had been runaways from either Tatar or Turkish slavery or serfdom (their name is derived from the Turkic word “freeman”), who were soon joined by those fleeing Polish or Muscovite oppression. They spoke an Eastern Slavic dialect, varying from Ukrainian (along the Dnipro) to Russian, and were almost uniformly Orthodox believers (the Turks and Tatars traded extensively in Eastern Slavic slaves, and the Tatars were the Muscovite overlords until about 1480). They resided in fairly small, self-ruling communities, located in areas, such as at the Dnipro rapids at Zaporizhzhia, that were difficult to penetrate for regular army units, whether Turkish, Polish, or Russian.
Cossacks lived off trade and plunder, and increasingly through serving as auxiliary troops in the Polish or Russian armies. During campaigning (or plundering) season, the men left their villages, while the women, elderly, and children tended to farms. Since they also engaged in piracy on the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, they somewhat bear a resemblance to contemporary pirates in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. Cossack communities originally were organized in a rather egalitarian manner (at least for the men). Male adults elected their chief (hetman) and made decisions collectively.
Cossack freedom was gradually curtailed by the Polish and Muscovite monarchs, who demanded the registration of Cossack membership in exchange for regular payments (often of grain and other goods in kind) to Cossack communities. They were to turn away new runaways who tried to escape serfdom by joining a Cossack community. This circumscribing of Cossack status gained in force in the seventeenth century, but it was not a smooth or irreversible process: the widespread revolt of Stenka Razin around 1670, which stretched from the mouth of the Volga to Simbirsk (Ul'ianovsk today) high up the river, found its origins in a conflict between “new” and “registered” Cossacks. Nor were all established Cossacks willing to give in to the tsar’s demands and register on the monarch’s lists.
Cossacks remained hard to control for long after, as is indicated by the Pugachev rebellion of the 1770s, which spread even farther than Razin’s. Only after suppressing the Pugachev uprising was the Russian government successful in curtailing Cossack freedom, slowly taking away their autonomy. But in exchange, Cossacks enjoyed great privileges. They were well rewarded for their service in the Russian army and preferred as the armed muscle of Russia’s colonial expansion into Siberia. Eventually, too, they became the tsarist regime’s riot police, instilling fear into all of the population when deployed in an ever more restless country after 1861.
Cossacks also had a reputation of being ferocious anti-Semites, which went back to their resentment of Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom. Judaic and Orthodox believers often clashed because Polish nobles used Jews as the stewards of their estates in the early modern period. This made them the special object of resentment among Orthodox peasants (including those who joined the Cossacks). In addition, some Jews, who were barred from owning land while allowed to charge interest to Christians (which was not permitted to Christians according to canon law), served as moneylenders to impecunious Slavic peasants. Whereas only a small minority of Jews worked as bailiffs or lent money, all were blamed in times of social unrest, as in the Cossack revolt headed by Bohdan Khmelnitskii against the Polish king that began in 1648. In this rebellion (1648–1656), as many as one hundred thousand Jews may have been killed. This hatred of Jews persisted into the modern era, when Cossacks often spearheaded pogroms in late tsarist Russia (between 1881 and 1906), and the propaganda that rolled from the printing presses made anti-Semitism even worse.
Whereas Cossack traditions often sat uneasily with the tsars (for, despite all the concessions, Cossack communities retained certain traditions of liberty that defied Russia’s official autocracy), their Communist successors also clashed with Cossack communities. Most Cossacks chose the side of the anti-Bolshevik White armies in the Russian Civil War (1918–1921), and the Bolsheviks responded with massive persecution. Certain Cossack communities on the Don and Kuban Rivers became the first of many echelons of deported populations that punctuated Soviet history between 1919 and 1953. Collectivization translated to an even fiercer assault on the Cossacks, as most of them were identified as rich peasants (kulaks) and thus were subject to banishment at a minimum. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cossack communities were restored in many places, but evil tongues maintained that these self-styled Cossacks were impostors, for the true Cossacks had been wiped out by the Soviet regime.
RELIGION AND FOREIGNERS
Cultural contact with neighboring foreigners who eventually became incorporated into Russia also led the state to be religiously tolerant.5 Islam existed peacefully alongside Russian Orthodoxy (and Kalmyk Buddhism and Siberian native religions were tolerated as well). But there was one peculiar quirk: other Christian religions were highly distrusted in the seventeenth century, especially Catholicism. Catholicism was associated with Russia’s archenemy Poland-Lithuania, which had occupied Moscow in the 1610s and desecrated Russian Orthodoxy’s most sacred shrines in the Kremlin. Jesuit conspiracies were suspected everywhere before Peter the Great’s rule.
Figure 1.6. Monks harvesting, early twentieth century (Library of Congress)
In a handful of designated places, Protestant worship was allowed, to accommodate the ever-increasing number of Western Europeans who resided in the Russian Empire after 1613. But even they were chased from living inside Moscow proper in 1654, when a wave of xenophobia steered by a religious reform movement combined with a plague epidemic and the outbreak of another war with Poland.
And this war was linked to a split within the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian Christianity’s ways had diverted from the path of the other Eastern Orthodox churches because of Russia’s remote location and cultural isolation under Mongolian rule in the Middle Ages. Inspired by Ukrainian clerics who had begun a theological counteroffensive against Jesuit attempts to convert Ukrainian Orthodox believers to Catholicism, from the 1640s Russian church leaders attempted to reform their church’s rituals. They tried to align them with those of their more sophisticated and “Greek” Ukrainian colleagues. Tsar Aleksei actively supported this reform movement as it jibed with his political ambitions to rule Ukraine in place of the Polish king. It would be accepted more easily by the Ukrainians if he could be depicted as a champion of their oppressed faith.
As we saw, the Russian decision to go to war with Poland in 1654 was in part to liberate oppressed co-religionists (although the Ukrainian Cossacks who allied with Aleksei believed that the fight was to maintain their liberty as well). But in the course of the war, Aleksei fell out with the patriarch of the Russian Church, Nikon. Nikon had been Aleksei’s choice for this office in 1652 and was trusted so much by the tsar that he headed the government in the tsar’s absence when Aleksei personally participated in the Polish campaigns (1654–1656). But Nikon soon exhibited signs of an unduly inflated sense of his own importance, posturing as a virtual equal to the tsar. His headstrong (or arrogant) nature had meanwhile led to mounting protest to his changes of the Russian Orthodox rituals (crossing oneself with three rather two fingers was one example), which Nikon had imposed to align Russia’s church with that of Ukraine. Opponents of Nikon began to suspect that he was the devil’s (or at least the pope’s) tool, corrupting pure Russian Christianity.
Aleksei faced Nikon down, and the latter went into self-imposed exile at the lavish monastery he had built for himself near Moscow. Efforts by both sides to reconcile failed, and Aleksei decided to call a church synod at the end of the Polish War (it gathered in 1666). In the presence of two Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, Nikon was deposed, but his reforms were confirmed.
This confirmation caused traditionalists to leave the Russian Church. They were sometimes called the Staro-obriadtsy, or Old Believers, but more often condemned as schismatics, or Raskolniki, a word with which Fyodor Dostoyevsky was to play in his famous novel Crime and Punishment(even if its protagonist Raskolnikov separates himself from the morality of society at large). Different from European Protestants, Old Believers never took up arms against government agents who tried to apprehend them for heresy; instead, they often engaged in the practice of self-immolation. Communities locked themselves into their wooden churches and set them alight. This radical protest waned toward 1700, in part because Peter the Great was far less concerned with enforcing religious orthodoxy. Meanwhile, thanks to the Raskol (Schism), historians can make use of one of the most vivid pieces of personal writing of seventeenth-century Russia, the (alleged?) autobiography of a leading figure of the Old Believers, Avvakum.
Xenophobia forced Westerners to leave the city of Moscow in 1654 and settle in a townlet outside the city’s walls, but the fear of contamination by foreigners was far from a consistent phenomenon in seventeenth-century Russia. Indeed, all Romanovs understood the necessity of calling in Western aid. Without it, Poles and Swedes might gain the upper hand on the battlefield, and Russia might be brought under the rule of a Catholic or Lutheran monarch. In addition, whereas the Orthodox mind-set was in principle a closed one, it could not wholly suppress innate curiosity. Aleksei was delighted to accept a Dutch-made globe, for example, at the height of the 1650s antiforeigner craze. In a more mundane sense, many among Russia’s noble elite acquired a taste for German, French, and Spanish wines.
Most important, however, was the increasing reliance on Western expertise for warfare. A steady stream of mercenaries traveled to Moscow throughout the seventeenth century. They instructed Russian troops on the new manner of warfare with volley-firing infantry, dragoon soldiers, and so on, placing a much greater emphasis on training and discipline. Mikhail and Aleksei both sponsored the building of warships to sail the Caspian Sea, in both cases without success. But the idea inspired Peter the Great, with lasting consequences.
Besides Western Europeans training Russian troops and building ships, predominantly Dutch merchants brought vast quantities of arms to Russia, and Dutch entrepreneurs significantly expanded Russian armament manufacturing at Tula and Kashira. Some Dutch engineers helped the Russians build fortifications at exposed Russian towns along the frontier, but the Russians relied on their own experience in creating the long-fortified border several hundreds of miles south of Moscow.
1. Those bearing the title of prince traced their ancestry to the first rulers of the Orthodox Eastern Slavs, the grand dukes of the house of Riurik (allegedly ruler in the ninth century).
2. Notorious among the servants who stayed in office was Ivan Gramotin (d. 1638).
3. Sometimes there were male shaman-like characters as well, not just in native Siberian communities but also in Russian villages in more remote territory.
4. Philosopher Georgii Fedotov (1886–1951) is the most famous of these observers.
5. These foreigners were called inorodtsy, rather than inozemtsy, the term used for expatriate Christian residents of Muscovy.
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